June 25, 2017

As containers become more prevalent across the enterprise, it’s become apparent that server operating systems will never be the same again. Because containers package so many of the libraries and subsystems that once were part of the operating system into the container, there’s increasingly less need for traditional server operating systems. In their place have sprung up a bevy of lightweight operating systems that significantly reduce the footprint of the operating system.

One of the more widely used but less-heralded entrants in this category is RancherOS, which Rancher Labs developed as a distribution of Linux specifically to run container applications. Originally available as an open-source project that developers invoked on their own, RancherOS has matured to the point where Rancher Labs will provide commercial support to enterprise IT organizations deploying RancherOS in a production environment, says Rancher Labs CEO Sheng Liang.

Rancher Labs has been investing in RancherOS as part of its effort to build a container management platform, he notes. But the two projects don’t always overlap in deployment; Liang says there are plenty of organizations that have adopted RancherOS without employing the Rancher container management platform and vice versa. There’s now enough demand for support from enterprise IT organizations to make it viable for Rancher Labs to provide commercial support, he says.

RancherOS can be deployed almost anywhere and differentiates itself from other Linux distributions in that it is simple to configure and simple to set up using Docker Compose files, he says.

Competition across the lightweight operating system category is already fierce. But the number of IT organizations that have replaced their legacy operating systems with a lighter-weight distribution is still relatively small. Adoption of lightweight operating systems tends to be confined to a subset of the IT market represented by developers building applications and a small number of IT organizations that have deployed containers on bare metal servers. But it’s only a matter of time before more containers are deployed on bare-metal servers running lightweight distributions of operating systems. As that transition occurs, Liang says he expects to see a lot more interest in RancherOS being driven by IT operations teams than developers.

In the meantime, IT organizations should start weighing now where their future operating system investments need to lie. Every provider of an operating system today provides a lightweight alternative. The issue is to what degree can IT organizations shift new and existing workloads to containers and lessen their dependencies on operating systems, which often consume more IT infrastructure resources and, from a security perspective, have a much larger attack surface that must be defended.

RancherOS may not be the dominant player in the lightweight operating system space today. But given the size of the potential available market, Shiang sees an opportunity to create another stream of revenue that happens to serve as a complement the company’s primary container management platform business.

Mike Vizard

Mike Vizard is a seasoned IT journalist with over 25 years of experience. He also contributed to IT Business Edge, Channel Insider, Baseline and a variety of other IT titles. Previously, Vizard was the editorial director for Ziff-Davis Enterprise as well as Editor-in-Chief for CRN and InfoWorld.